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Affirmative action in Higher Education in Brazil: Sao Paulo's turn 

Simon Schwartzman 

Published in Inside Higher Education - The World View 1 
January 6, 2013 - 3:00pm 

In August 2012 the Brazilian President, Dilma Rousseff, signed a bill making it 
mandatory for all federal universities in Brazil to reserve 50% of the places in 
each degree program for students coming from public schools according to their 
family incomes and their ethnic profile (self-declared descendants of blacks and 
Brazilian natives), and giving them four years to implement the programs. Not to 
be undone, in December of 2012 the governor of the State of Sao Paulo, Geraldo 
Alkimin, announced his own affirmative action project for the state universities, 
calling it a program of "social inclusion with merit". 

Differently from the federal government that enacted the legislation without any 
consideration for how to address the low educational qualifications of most 
students coming from public schools, the Sao Paulo project introduced two 
innovations: first, students entering through the quota system would have to 
attend two years of a preparatory college, after which they would have access to 
university degree programs according to their achievements. Second, those 
students would also get a stipend of half the Brazilian minimum wage, about 140 
US dollars a month. 

Some figures are needed to place policies in perspective. According to the most 
recent data, there were 6.7 million higher education students in Brazil, of which 
one million were enrolled in federal institutions, 620 thousand in state 
institutions (of which 163 thousand in the state universities of Sao Paulo). Most 
of the students, about 5 million or 73%, are enrolled in private institutions, most 



of them for-profit. Access to public institutions is through competitive exams 
that usually favor students coming from private schools, generally of better 
quality and financially inaccessible to students from poor families. 87% of the 
students in secondary education are in public schools, their family income is a 
third of those in private schools, and the quality of the public schools are 
significantly lower than secondary schools in the private sector. 

It makes sense, therefore, to look for ways to give more opportunities in higher 
education to students coming from public schools and poor backgrounds, even 
while the poor quality of the public secondary schools persists (The "race" 
criteria, strongly correlated with income, is another matter, not discussed here). 
Since these students tend to be less qualified, however, it is far from clear that 
they will be able to reach the levels of their peers easily and there is a strong 
chance that the public universities will have to lower their standards to respond 
to this new clientele. 

The inequity in Sao Paulo, Brazil's richest state, is still higher, with only 10% of 
their students attending the state-funded universities - Universidade de Sao 
Paulo, Universidade de Campinas and the State University of Sao Paulo, UNESP - 
which are among the best and better endowed in the country. The solution 
proposed by the state, in negotiation with the university authorities, assumes 
that the two year preparatory college would be enough the prepare the students 
to be successful in university programs and, if not, they can still enter the 
vocational schools that exist to some extent in Sao Paulo, but are mostly absent 
in other regions. 

The challenge is that, except for a pilot experiment at the University of Campinas, 
Brazilian higher education is based on the traditional European arrangement in 
which the students go directly from secondary school to professional careers, 
and in the past all attempts to create two-year, general, pre-university programs 
have failed. The Sao Paulo government announced that this preparatory college 
will rely heavily on ITC and distance education to grow rapidly, since the 
expectation is that, in five years, half of the students in public universities will be 
coming from public secondary schools. At the same time, instead of offering 
different options for the students, the project seems to assume that everybody 

will follow the same liberal-arts curricula, with vocational education reserved for 
those who fail after the first year. It is not a good recipe for a higher education 
system that hopes to expand and become more inclusive.